The Cost Of Things: A Visit To A Post-Communist Czech Hospital
Treating a UTI Abroad
I had been living and teaching English in the Czech Republic for eight months when a trip to the toilet left me feeling nervous that I might have the beginnings of a urinary tract infection. If you’re unfamiliar with UTIs (hello, men!) you can Google the symptoms. Basically they aren’t pleasant.
My initial instinct was to cling desperately to denial, as is my standard approach to dealing with most medical issues. However, this time I had an even greater reason to metaphorically cover my ears and hum loudly: I was living in a former Soviet Bloc country, with only the bare minimum health insurance to cover Visa requirements, and I speak very little Czech. If I had to go to a doctor, well, I didn’t even know where to begin.
After a few days of denial, the symptoms started to increase. I hit Google for answers. After ruling out bladder cancer I finally accepted that what I had was likely indeed a UTI. So I started researching natural remedies: cranberry juice, ginger tea, water, lemon, water, just-kidding-cranberry-juice-is-useless, blueberries, baking soda, water. It was an exhausting week of fluids.
When none of these methods prevailed, I reluctantly pulled out my health insurance card and found a website to request a doctor’s appointment. I filled out a generic form asking what kind of doctor I needed and after hitting submit was notified that within a couple days I would be sent a list of doctors in my area that were covered under my health insurance.
In the meantime I enlisted the help of some female Czech friends. They suggested I purchase a homeopathic remedy from a pharmacy called Lichorerisnice. The lady at the pharmacy who sold it to me held out five fingers and emphatically added, “Five times day!”
With reluctance, I choked down 10 drops of this “medicine” every few hours from a brown bottle with a pretty, red flower that tasted like the worst shot of my life. Every time I took it I felt like singing “A Spoonful of Sugar.”
Although it helped to mask the symptoms slightly, I soon began to feel a deep pain on my back right side. Google, Google, Google. Aha, my kidneys had become infected. Where was my health insurance email? It had been a week since I sent in the doctor’s request and I was starting to accept that a medical professional might be my only solution.
I waited and drank tea and drank water and drank Lichorerisnice and sang “A Spoonful of Sugar.”
After another week of waiting, my kidneys had gotten so bad that I could barely put my shoes on. It was time to take rash action. I called a number on my insurance card and over-shared with the man on the other end. He said I could always go to the hospital.
Go to the hospital? For a generic UTI? I thought this was ludicrous but decided to oblige out of desperation.
I called the hospital to make an appointment. The lady who picked up spoke no English and quickly hung up on me. I had an overwhelming sense of helplessness. So I cried. Then I promptly marched myself over to the hospital, steeling myself for anything.
I arrived at the emergency room of Motol Hospital on a Monday evening. I thought it would be a mess, being a Monday and after work, but it was eerily empty. The exterior was a product of the communistic ’80s, an era of architecture that at best reminded the world of the relevance of art and at worst made you hope you’d leave the hospital in a body bag to be spared from seeing it again.
The inside was even worse. It was dark. So dark. And sterile, like all hospitals, but in a cold, gloomy way.
After checking in at the E.R. and silently blessing the dear woman there who spoke a small amount of English, I was directed upstairs to the Department of Foreign Sick People. Here again I was met with ’80s brown carpeting and chairs, low yellow lighting, and a handful of people working behind a very large wall of glass.
A woman took my insurance information, gave me some paperwork, and instructed me to call the number on my insurance card to tell them where I was. I thought this strange but did as I was told. My insurance company was very helpful and quickly faxed the woman some documents, assumedly telling them I had indeed paid a small pittance for health insurance entitling me to perhaps a free Band-Aid or lollypop.
Once the paperwork and fax documents had been signed and approved, I was sent back downstairs to wait in the E.R.
The E.R. waiting room followed the precedent set by other areas of the hospital: dark and empty. I sat in a faded blue vinyl chair and waited before four enormous, brightly colored, perfectly square doors. Each was marked with an equally enormous number, one through four, like on a television game show. The white walls and linoleum floors bored me as I waited for my number to come up on a digital display. This would signal which lucky door I’d get to go , hopefully resulting in an all-expense-paid pee test and drugs.
Armed with earphones and a book, I prepared for the excruciatingly long wait I was accustomed to hearing about in socialist-style healthcare systems. It was pure luck that I glanced up just a couple minutes later in time to see my number flashing above Door Number 2. A two-minute wait at an E.R.? Things were looking up!
I entered through the magical mystery orange door into a dazzling white room full of white equipment, white beds, white monitors, and two white women. In their surroundings, dressed in head-to-toe white scrubs, they reminded me of female Oompa Loompas — if Oompa Loompas were tall, thin, and attractive.
They directed me to a seat as they looked through my insurance paperwork. Then they spoke to me in Czech and I replied, “Nemluvím česky,” (translation: ‘I don’t speak Czech’) with my most apologetic eyes. They waved me off through a door without saying any more. In the next room of more dazzling white equipment, two old white Czech nurses in white scrubs sat behind white computers. I stood waiting in uncomfortable silence as they typed slowly on their keyboards the way only those who grew up before the computer age can type, like a young child first learning to play Chopsticks.
After a long while, one stood up and faced me, “What is your problem?”
“I think I have a urinary tract infection.”
“Does this hurt?” she asked before karate-chopping me in the side.
She sat down, typed some more, scribbled on a piece of paper and handed me my winnings.
“Take this to pharmacy, they give you drug. Take drug two times each day for 10 day.”
That was it. No pee test. No medical history request. No further questions. My entire medical crisis summed up in two simple questions. I’m pretty sure I could’ve walked in there and said I needed Vicodin because my cat died and my wish would’ve been granted. These weren’t Oompa Loompa ladies — these were fairy godmothers.
At the hospital pharmacy, I handed over my prescription to a lady behind more glass.
“We don’t have this drug now,” she said, waving my prescription in the air. “But this drug is same.”
She handed me a small box and requested 300czk. I decided to take my chances on the drug being close enough to what I needed and paid up. The whole trip cost no more than one hour and $12, which as far as I’m concerned is a medical miracle.
Though I took the drugs to completion, it was only a few days before my symptoms began to dissipate. My post-communist hospital trip was, surprisingly, pretty painless — albeit more than a little unorthodox.
Oh, and three weeks later? I finally received that email from my health insurance with the list of doctors I could see.
Kate is an ESL teacher living, working, and eating Oreos in Prague, Czech Republic. Read more adventures at her blog: www.foreignhaven.wordpress.com
Support The Billfold